Surfing has always seemed like the coolest sport anyone can do. It conjures up images of handsome people with lovely teeth and sun-bleached hair scoring their boards and their bodies through the water as they escape whatever it is people hide at sea to escape from. I’ve always watched from the shore and wondered, would I be as good at that as I feel I would naturally be. Before we continue, the short answer is no.
As a kid I watched Neighbours a lot. There were a lot of cool surf dudes in Neighbours at the time. There may well be still. I can’t deal with the thought of watching soaps though. My first experience of death was Todd Landers. He got hit by a van. It was 13 July 1992. Todd was really cool. I still miss him.
For my 29th birthday Charlotte and I headed down to the coast. Which coast you may ask? The coast if you want to get away from it all and have the chance to surf. Cornwall. We stayed in a gypsy caravan for a week where we would often fight over who was going to get out of bed and into the two degree winter morning to make tea (it was invariably me) and see what culinary delights it was possible to summon up on a simple red camping stove. It turns out you can bake a Camembert and grill a salmon if you really commit to it.
While we were there, our kind host Dale, who we found through my new best friend AirBnB, asked if we wanted to go surfing. Dale had lovely teeth and sun-bleached hair even though it was February and for some reason I trusted him.
On the last full day we were staying in St Ives he picked out a couple of wetsuits for us, found the biggest, thickest surfboards known to man and we followed him in his 4×4 down to the beach. The car had to be bump-started every time he took it off the farmland. It was part of the charm.
We pulled up in a residential area and walked through a number of alleyways to get down to the beach itself. Dale kept pointing out different buildings and telling us how much it would cost to move into them and move it up. For a cool surf dude he had a real eye for property development. I could hear the roar of the water, feel it rising up high enough to sit on my lips and make the experience taste salty. I wedged the board under my arm tightly and tried to make it look like I did this shit every day. I don’t do this shit every day. I process words and numbers every day for “the man” but I wanted to look like I knew what I was doing.
We got to the beach and quickly got changed into our wetsuits. There were two reasons we quickly wanted to get changed into our wetsuits, the first is that we were very exposed in the little concrete overhang beneath the stairs down to the water and the second is that it was four degrees out. If you take anything away from this, it is important to know that it is a bad idea to go surfing in February as a first-timer. It’s a bad idea to do anything in February really.
Wetsuits are a curious thing. With the way Bond slides out of them revealing a tuxedo underneath you would think they come away like the outer layer of a week old onion. They don’t. It’s like trying to fit your entire body into the rubbery insides of Ronnie Corbett via his mouth hole (especially when you’re six foot tall). I eventually wangled my way in with a lot of elbow grease and grunting and like in every other situation I’ve ever been in, started to wonder how much of a tit I looked. I looked over at Charlotte in her sea-blue wetsuit, she looked like Lara Croft in those levels where you spend a lot of time underwater watching her fabulous pixelated backside. As a boy I used to enjoy watching Lara Croft drown. Concerning and also possibly the reason I didn’t offer a lot of support when my girlfriend went under the water.
We waddled out awkwardly, trying to impress on the dog-walkers huddled up against the cold on the far reaches of the beach that we knew exactly what we were doing. I’ve seen enough people having surfing lessons to know that you’re not allowed in the water for about an hour. Instead you have to put the board down in the sand and practice lying on that, popping up and riding around like a sand god or goddess. Before we even have time to ask if you still called the front the bow and the back the stern, Dale and his girlfriend had run out into the water and disappeared. The waves breaking about a hundred metres out looked incredible. It was only as they reached them that I was able to see how large they were. Aside from the little dots climbing up the side of the walls of water everything looked fairly grey. The sky was grey. The water was grey. My skin was grey and sort of mottled. I tied my GoPro around my wrist and hoped that it a) wouldn’t come off and b) would make me look cool. It held around 50% of the bargain.
Charlotte was a couple of steps ahead of me and bravely headed out into the water.
“My shoe just filled with water,” she said of the two-pronged Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle-looking shoes we were both in. “Is that supposed to happen?”
“Yeah, of course,” I said in a way that I hoped convinced us both. We walked out a little further, her slightly less stable because she doesn’t have the gangly proportions of a Beano character and can’t wrap an entire arm around a surfboard.
We soon discovered that the cold we had been expecting, that breath-shuddering induction to the water simply wasn’t there. I felt comfortable in my wetsuit. Maybe, I considered, I had found my true calling. I pushed the board out further and dipped the back of it so the front rose over the first few waves we had encountered. Charlotte was struggling. What I hadn’t considered is the differences in our history around open water. I spent a lot of summers in the sea, and I don’t mean that in the twenty-first century call to get rid of something we don’t like. We would always find a beach and my brothers and I would bodyboard our way to glory. I therefore know how to get through waves, how to ride back in and most importantly, what to do when you inevitably go under. Charlotte managed to set herself up to ride her board in a couple of times before she went down. I helpfully captured the whole thing on GoPro before she was able to splutter enough seawater out of her face to call me a bastard and call it a day.
I headed out deeper without her. Waves started to seem like daunting bullies from my secondary school days, big foamy versions of the boys who hit puberty first and didn’t like me. I bounced up and nutted them down. I wasn’t having any of it. I rode in a couple of times laying out on the board and then decided to test this standing up thing. If you’ve got to crawl before you can walk then I had put in plenty of time riding into the shores of the med as a pre-teen. The first time I “popped up”, I made it to my knees before the board tipped up and I disappeared beneath the water. I coughed up a lot of seawater and quite probably a less important internal organ. I looked up to the beach to see if Charlotte was hanging around looking cold and concerned for my safe return from sea. I couldn’t see her anywhere. I headed back out to try again.
I knew it would be just a matter of time before I found my natural rhythm and went pro. All I needed was a couple more hideous wipeouts and I would be the best damn surfer this ocean had ever seen. The next time I managed to stand I was too far forwards on the board and it nose-dived to the sea floor, sending me hurtling upside down into the water again. For a second I wondered if it looked like I could have been hanging ten, a move I only know from playing Tony Hawk, again as a teenager. Watching the footage back there’s no mistaking the fact that I simply didn’t know what I was doing. I was also very liberal with the bluest of four-letter words.
I pushed the board out again and waited. Tick followed tock followed tick followed tock. Everything went black and white. Some horses started to gallop over the lip of the next wave. I was in a Guinness advert. I lined myself up and started to paddle. The wave caught me and I bolted forward. I held the board steady, got up onto my knees and then jumped up. I was standing on a surf board. It could only have been for a few seconds, enough time to triumphantly lift my arms over my head before it all went Pete Tong but I was going to have that. I had done some actual genuine surfing.
Once I had recovered I looked up to the beach alcove and Charlotte was still not there, not watching me. I wondered if she would ever realise how truly cool her boyfriend was. It started to rain. Then it started to hail. I was reminded of the line in Forrest Gump:
“We been through every kind of rain there is. Little bitty stingin’ rain… and big ol’ fat rain. Rain that flew in sideways. And sometimes rain even seemed to come straight up from underneath.”
This was the rain that seemed to come straight up from underneath. I decided to take on one more wave before having to explain to my girlfriend why I thought it would be enduring to capture her first wipeout to show to our grandkids one day.
I spotted the wave. I turned and started to paddle. It caught me. I stood, I whooped and I fell. I realised as I walked back to the shore and started to consider getting out of my new layer of Rip Curl skin that everything is like surfing or that surfing is like everything else. The things you fear about it, the being cold, the going under, the drowning. It’s very unlikely they’ll actually end you. You might fall, you might go under. You might end up in tears because you can’t feel your feet for an hour afterwards but at the end of the day, if you can just stand up for two seconds and holler it out to the world then it feels like you have got somewhere.
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